`Deep history' lined in rock

Ancient carvings tell of life along the Susquehanna River

April 06, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Ann S. Persson ran her hand gently across a primitive sunburst design carved into rock thousands of years ago. She traced lines radiating from the center to the rock's edge.

"It's like touching history, our connection from the past to the present," said Persson, curator of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, which today opens an exhibit of ancient rock art, known as petroglyphs.

Charlie Hall, the state's terrestrial archaeologist, will introduce the collection of rocks that he called "powerful communications devices" that date back about 4,000 years.

"You are touching deep, deep history, the core of humanity," Hall said. "These drawings were a means of communication that still communicate to us today. They shout `Look at me!' and completely draw you in."

The carvings help tell the story of life along the Susquehanna River, when Native Americans fished, hunted and camped along its shores.

"The Susquehanna was then like I-95 is today," Persson said. "The river was a major thoroughfare, a way to get to and from different resources."

The petroglyphs, carved with whatever stone tools were available, provide insights into the culture of the era. They may have served as trail markers denoting good fishing grounds or dangerous waters, archaeologists said.

"Who knows what the images are trying to tell us?" Persson said. "Maybe they were recording the climate or telling a creation story."

Images of fish, the sun and the water, as well as some early doodling -- concentric circles and squiggly lines -- once attracted 20th century explorers to a rock island in the river near the Harford-Cecil county line.

"People knew the drawings were there," Persson said. "Boaters would stop at the island and explore."

Before construction of the Conowingo Dam inundated that island more than 80 years ago, area residents insisted on preserving what has become known as the Bald Friar rocks, named for the area where they were discovered.

"The rocks were saved and that's a testament to the citizens of the area," Hall said, adding that more than 30 petroglyphs are now protected state property that will be shared with the public.

After they were removed from the rock island, the petroglyphs were displayed at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore for many decades, but have since been restored and preserved at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in Calvert County. The lab's staff has studied, analyzed and catalogued the collection, which will be shared with museums throughout the state.

Three petroglyphs arrived at the Havre de Grace museum last week and will remain on loan for the next two years.

"We love having the stones back in the area," Persson said. "You can find rock art all over the world, but it's neat to have a local example from Maryland's own Native American heritage."

The petroglyphs, exhibited in Havre de Grace, were carved into rocks weighing nearly 100 pounds each. Later Native American populations may have refined or deepened the lines but did not alter the drawings, experts theorize.

"We don't know exactly when or who, but most probably these were drawn by ancestors of tribes in the area during the 1600s," Persson said.

The heaviest stone shows a large, flat fish with lines radiating outward. Another depicts the sunburst and the third is filled with concentric circles, one of the most common petroglyphs.

"The stones say different things to different people," Hall said. "To me, they say these people were very human and thought symbolically."

The Bald Friar collection varies significantly from later petroglyphs, dating to about 1600 and found at Safe Harbor, along the river in Pennsylvania, he said. With more specific images of recognizable animals -- wild turkeys, antlered deer and birds -- those drawings are not so enigmatic and open to interpretation, he said.

Sandy Demczak, who stopped by the maritime museum last week, marveled at the stones still in shipping crates. Like Persson, she could not resist tracing the ancient lines.

"It's wild that these drawings are so old," said Demczak, a Pylesville resident. "It must be something people experienced and wanted to tell."

For Persson, whose office overlooks the Susquehanna, the drawings connect past to present.

"We are still living in the same areas, enjoying the same beautiful views of the river," she said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Hall's lecture begins at 2 p.m. at the museum, 100 Lafayette St. Information at hdgmaritime museum.org or 410-939-4800. Visitors are asked to make a $2 donation.

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